The Power of Food: Do You Really Know Your Food?

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Mackinzee Macho | February 19, 2021

Mackinzee Macho is an undergraduate student and Senior Program Manager in Human and Ecological Systems Transformations for the Foresight Lab. The Foresight Lab is a think-tank that shifts culture toward social, economic, and ecological well-being through consulting. This series, “The Power of Food,” will explore topics like carbon sequestration and regenerative farming.

If you think your food comes from the grocery store, you’re not wrong. Where does it truly originate? Ninety-five percent of our food comes from the soil, but most Americans don’t cultivate it themselves. In fact, only 1 in 3 Americans grow any portion of their own food. We have become severely disconnected from nature, our soils, and the origins of our nutrition.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service states that six pounds of soil are lost per pound of conventionally cultivated food eaten annually. Topsoil is nutrient-rich and crucial to plant and soil health. In addition, our food has become less nutritious. This has serious environmental and human health implications, and at the rate at which we are degrading soil, this leaves us with only 60 harvests left.

Now is the time to reconnect with the source of our food: 81 million Americans own a piece of land and most of that is covered in turf-grass. There are 63,000 square miles of planted grass yards in the United States, which is an area three times larger than the total acreage of corn. Imagine if more Americans converted carbon-intensive lawns into luscious food gardens? Gardening is rewarding and satisfying, and it also teaches how nature works not for us, but with us.

Growing your own food is a creative activity, combats climate change, and saves money. Organic, regenerative, or carbon gardening are the most environmentally beneficial ways of contributing healthy food to your diet. These practices use compost, mulch, and natural pest management to increase soil nutrients and decrease pests.

Gardening reconnects us with nature and provides a great weapon in our arsenal to combat the climate emergency. Creating a symbiotic relationship with nature will generate a greater well-being for our economy, ecology, and society.

For more resources on gardening, check out some of these links:

Here’s What Was Discussed in The First National Climate Task Force Meeting

Image of National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy
Via The White House on Flickr

Elizabeth Miglin | February 18, 2021

National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy virtually convened the first National Climate Task Force meeting on Thursday, February 11th. 

21 agencies and offices were present, including Vice-President Harris who greeted Task Force members as the meeting began. The task force convened to discuss implementing Biden’s “whole-of-government” approach to address climate change, achieving environmental justice and creating union-backed jobs.

McCarthy said the administration would focus on addressing methane emissions early on and will use Biden’s executive authority to roll out climate-related orders. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and international climate envoy John Kerry have joined McCarthy in stating support for establishing a carbon tax, a move that could be achieved through executive action. 

Because this meeting was the first of its kind, task force members focused on the role of the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, the National Climate Task Force Charter, early actions, and near-term priorities. The task force also announced $280 million in grant opportunities for the Energy and Transportation Department and created a new working group to address challenges like creating new affordable energy storage and developing sustainable fuel for aircraft and ships. 

The Biden administration hopes to announce aggressive new goals for reducing the United States’ global emissions on April 22

Dr. Witold F. “Witek” Krajewski Elected to the National Academy of Engineering

Maxwell Bernstein | February 17, 2021

Dr. Witold F. “Witek” Krajewski, director of the Iowa Flood Center and the University of Iowa Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been elected as a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

“As a sports analogy goes, it’s like being in the hall of fame,” Larry Weber, a research engineer for the IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering said. According to the National Academy of Engineering press-release, “Academy membership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to “engineering research, practice, or education, including, where appropriate, significant contributions to the engineering literature” and to “the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to engineering education.”  

“Witek’s recognized accomplishments as an academician, his scientific creativity as expressed through the technologies he developed, and his service to our state and nation to better protect people from the devastation of floods, transcend the requirements for induction into the NAE and make him exceptionally well-qualified for this highest honor,” Weber said. “Having members of the academy are very important for our institutions. The flood center, IIHR, the college, the university; having an NAE member here brings additional notoriety. We had one, Jerry Schnoor, and now we’ve doubled. That’s wonderful.”

Iowa Business Interests Face Off Over Proposed Ethanol Mandate

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Thomas Robinson | February 16th, 2021

Gov. Kim Reynolds has proposed a new ethanol fuel mandate which would increase the sale of renewable fuels at Iowa gas stations and shift existing tax credits to support higher percentage renewable fuels.

The proposed rule, House Study Bill 185, would mandate that all gasoline sold in Iowa must include 10% ethanol and that all diesel fuel must include 5-11% biodiesel depending on the time of year.  Gas stations would also be allowed only one non-renewable pump, and, would also be required to install new equipment that could handle higher percentages of biofuels.  The potential equipment upgrade has pitted fuel business interests against the governor as the required upgrades could potentially cost up to $1 billion dollars.

Fuel interests in Iowa, like FUELIowa and the Iowa Motor Truck Association, warn that the proposal may increase consumer fuel costs and drive truckers to not purchase fuel in Iowa.  On the other side, biofuel interests, such as the Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, favor the proposal as it is projected to increase biofuel grants by around $7 million per year.  Competing interests between these two groups over a vital Iowa industry suggests that there will be heated discussions when subcommittee hearings for the bill begin on Wednesday.

Iowa GOP Senators Move to Cut Tax Exemptions for Forest Reserves

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Nicole Welle | February 15, 2021

GOP members of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee voted last week to advance a bill that would reduce tax breaks for Iowa forest reserves.

Currently, landowners qualify for a 100% tax break on land made up of forests as small as two acres. The new bill would reduce the forest reserve tax break to 75% of the property value, require a minimum of 10 acres to qualify and place a five-year limit on exemptions. GOP senators who introduced the bill argued that it could prevent landowners from cheating the system, but Democrats criticized its timing as Iowa fights chronic water pollution and continues to recover from the derecho that destroyed 25% of the state’s trees last August, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids criticized Republicans for pushing a bill that could interfere with derecho recovery. Lawmakers have made little effort to help landowners recover, and increased taxes would only add to the burden of recovery costs, Hogg said. Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott also opposed the bill, saying that Iowa’s limited forest helps reduce water pollution and supports the state’s wood industry.

Iowa’s woodlands currently support a $4 billion forest industry. Because woodland owners have to wait until a tree is mature enough to cut it down, the tax breaks help alleviate the costs of growing and maintaining their trees in between harvests. Without the current exemption, some woodland owners could be forced to replace some of their trees with row crops. This crop conversion could accelerate soil erosion and increase water pollution in the state, according to the Des Moines Register.

If passed by the Senate, the bill’s language would require the Iowa DNR, rather than the agriculture department, to verify that land qualifies as a reserve. However, the bill does not allocate extra money to the DNR, and the state did not conduct a financial study to estimate the added cost.

The Power of Food: We Can Reverse the Climate Emergency by Working Together

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Mackinzee Macho | February 12, 2021

Mackinzee Macho is an undergraduate student and Senior Program Manager in Human and Ecological Systems Transformations for the Foresight Lab. The Foresight Lab is a think-tank that shifts culture toward social, economic, and ecological well-being through consulting. This series, The Power of Food, will explore topics like carbon sequestration and regenerative farming.

Collective action can alter the course of history. The climate emergency is intimidating, but together we can change our behavior to reverse it. The science is clear: the Earth’s average temperature is rising at rates our modern civilization has never seen before. Extreme weather events are occurring more often and with greater intensity, climate change will only become worse with the degradation of our ecosystem from the continual release of greenhouse gases. It took us decades to get into this situation, but we do not need decades to dig ourselves out.  

Recently, President Biden signed multiple executive orders that accelerate action in the face of the climate emergency. Rejoining the Paris climate accord, increasing offshore wind usage, and ending reliance on fossil fuels are key, but imagine the impact if each of us added our individual local actions to the effort.

Collective action and a call for sustainability will further combat the emergency. We can harness the potential of our soils to sequester carbon. Sequestration pumps carbon out of our atmosphere into the ground along with improving soil and plant health. Citizens can sequester carbon by gardening and composting. Growing one’s own food is healthier for our soil, the Earth, and ourselves. Placing our food and other compostable waste into piles reduces waste in the landfill and improves soil and plant health when applied. These simple steps when performed collectively can offset emissions and reduce climate change impacts.

Choosing greener energy, regeneratively grown foods, and responsibly sourced materials creates a market for them. Citizens must urge producers, vendors, farmers, and more to evolve into regenerative and sustainable practices. If we are driven by hope in the face of what seems impossible, nothing can stop us.

Drought Conditions Remain in Western Iowa Despite Extra Snowfall in January

Graphic of Iowa map showing drought conditions
Via U.S. Drought Monitor

Nicole Welle | February 11, 2021

Precipitation levels were slightly higher than usual last month, but the added snowfall failed to improve drought conditions in western Iowa.

2020 was an extremely dry year for the state of Iowa, and many parts of the state have not yet recovered. In January, precipitation was 0.35 inches above average for that time of the year. However, it also averaged 4 degrees warmer than usual, and the Iowa DNR reported that at least half of the state is currently experiencing abnormally dry or drought conditions. At the end of the month, a small section of northwest Iowa was in extreme drought, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

DNR officials warned that the shallow soils underneath the snowfall in western Iowa are dry enough to potentially push drought conditions into the spring. This could be problematic for farmers as they go into planting season. Even if precipitation levels continue to meet or exceed averages over the next few months, snowmelt likely won’t be able to improve soil conditions very quickly since groundwater is already frozen in place.

The U.S. drought monitor reported that 52% of the state is experiencing abnormally dry conditions, but it is still a significant improvement from three months ago when it was at 64%. State and Federal officials will host a virtual public meeting to discuss the conditions in western Iowa further on January 13.

Advocates Call for Moratorium on Factory Farms

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Maxwell Bernstein | February 10, 2021

Iowa advocates calling for the moratorium on factory farms are urging the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature to approve their request, according to The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

Emma Schmit, an advocate for Food and Water Watch said in a virtual news conference, Iowa has, “more than 10,000 factory farms (and) more than 750 polluted waterways…If we want any semblance of an agriculture sector in Iowa left for our grandchildren, we need to take bold action right now.”

Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids along with 18 others have co-sponsored a bill to put a moratorium on the expansion of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations due to threats toward health, air quality, and drinking water.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford said the bill was, “dead on arrival” to which his spokeswoman Melissa Deatsch said in The Courier, “The speaker has been consistent on this point: You can’t begin a conversation on this issue with one of the most radical proposals there is.”

Climate Driven Increase In Bat Species Richness Likely Connected To COVID-19

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Thomas Robinson | February 9th, 2021

In a new study, researchers have published a link between climate driven shifts in bat populations, and the emergence of COVID-19.

Researchers mapped the global range of bat populations, as well as changes in global vegetation within the past 100 years to determine how changes in global bat species richness were driven by climate change. There were many regions across the globe that experienced local increases in bat populations, such as parts of Brazil and eastern Africa, however a major hotspot was the Yunnan province in southern China.  Over the 100 year time span, around 40 bat species flocked to the province, which is a significant concern as it is known that the number of coronaviruses in a region is closely linked to local bat species richness.  Researchers point out that the Yunnan province is also the likely place of origin for both SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2. 

Bats are studied because they are known to carry the largest amount of zoonotic diseases out of all mammals, and both the SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks have been attributed to bat populations.  Zoonotic diseases are illnesses that are transferred to humans by animals when both populations begin to interact. As human’s develop and expand into animal habitats these interactions become more common, especially as climate change drives the spread of disease vectors such as mosquitoes.  In a separate study, it was shown that over 60% of emerging infectious diseases, like COVID-19, are linked to animal to human transmission.

Human Noise Pollution is Threatening Marine Life

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Nicole Welle | February 8, 2021

A new scientific review confirmed that human-made noise is disrupting the ocean soundscape and harming marine life.

Anthropogenic sound from sources like ships, seismic surveys, pile drivers, dynamite fishing and drilling platforms threatens the countless marine species that rely on sound to navigate and communicate. The new review, published last week in the journal Science, combined the work of 25 authors in various fields of marine acoustics to form a more complete synthesis of evidence on the effects of noise pollution. While past studies have outlined the effects noise pollution has on individual large marine animals, this study includes many groups of marine life and aims to increase global awareness of the issue, according to a New York Times article.

The study shows that increasing levels of anthropogenic noise not only negatively affect large mammals like whales and orcas, but also groups like zooplankton, jellyfish and clownfish. After clownfish are conceived in coral reefs, they drift in the open ocean as larvae until they have grown enough to swim against the tide. They then use the sounds coral reefs make to find their way back to the reef where they will live out the rest of their lives. However, high levels of human-made noise sometimes prevent baby clownfish from hearing the popping and snapping of reefs, and they never find their way back, according to the article.

The authors also found that some species of whales, killer whales and porpoises will permanently evacuate areas where noise pollution levels are too high. However, these forced evacuations can lead to population decline, especially in species that have limited biogeographical ranges like the Maui dolphin. Even when marine life can escape, they don’t have anywhere to go that is free of noise pollution.

While the study’s results are worrying, the authors say that noise pollution is the easiest pollutant to control in the ocean. Reducing ships’ speed, developing quieter propellors, avoiding sensitive areas and moving shipping lanes could all help to reduce its impact. Many animals also have the ability to quickly rebound. For example, some large marine mammals immediately began repopulating areas that had been vacant for decades when pandemic-related lockdowns reduced noise pollution by just 20% last year. The authors hope their review urges policymakers to enact policy changes that address noise pollution and raise awareness of the issue.